QFD: the Low-Tech Way to Collaborate

Coordinating all the tasks necessary to bring a new vehicle to market isn’t child’s play. eBusiness vendors have suggested throwing lots of technology at the problem.

Coordinating all the tasks necessary to bring a new vehicle to market isn’t child’s play. eBusiness vendors have suggested throwing lots of technology at the problem. A decidedly low-tech solution has been around for half of a century. Quality Function Deployment (QFD) is starting to look a lot better now that capital budgets have almost totally dried up for eBusiness initiatives.

Children delight in playing the “telephone” party game: The first child in a long line whispers a sentence to the next child. Each child in turn quietly relays the message down to only the next child down the line. At the end the last child publicly announces the message she received and the first child then reveals the original sentence. Laughter inevitably erupts as the children discover the two messages bear only a ridiculous resemblance to each other.

Communication in the automotive industry is strikingly similar, unfortunately. In today’s highly competitive world, this is not a laughing matter. In a typical new product launch, specifications are passed from functional area to functional area. By the time a new vehicle reaches the market, it may fall far short of the original intentions. Despite all our information systems, downstream users are still making critical product and process decisions in a vacuum. For instance, product engineers routinely make trade-offs in tolerances that unknowingly diminish the product’s appeal to the customer. The product engineers do not do this intentionally. Rather, they are never informed as to the reasons behind many of the specifications that upstream groups handed them.

If key goals and specifics aren’t transmitted successfully among functional groups, then each group misplaces its effort. The company as a whole suffers. The major goal of any firm, therefore, should be to balance its limited resources optimally so the resulting products and services best reflect customer desires. The “customer,” therefore, becomes a weighted set of characteristics that pervasively drive the company in all its internal matters. Highly fragmented, large organizations lose sight of this goal in making routine decisions. To do so for long leads to extinction.

In the 1990’s, many bet that technology would solve this problem. Today product lifecycle management (PLM) and other eBusiness initiatives are offered as “white knights.” However, the problem is fundamentally a process and system issue: to make sure hand-offs don’t lead to fumbles. This is true regardless how the information is transmitted–electronically, verbally or in print.

Quality function deployment (QFD) is a system for translating consumer requirements into appropriate company requirements at each stage. This ranges from market studies, R&D, engineering, manufacturing to marketing/sales and distribution. QFD systematically aims to ensure that important issues are not lost or misinterpreted as a project is handed off from functional group to functional group. Traditionally, it has been applied to product development, but QFD can be applied to any complex project.

Over the years some of the major proponents of QFD have been Volkswagen, General Motors, Budd, and ITT. QFD played a major role in Ford Motor Company’s last major turnaround in 1987. Toyota cut the cost of launching a minivan by 61% thanks to QFD.

The term itself originated in 1972 in Mitsubishi’s Kobe shipyard. Its roots, however, extend back to “value engineering,” a practice born in the United States in the 1940s. The QFD technique systematically helps link to customer needs and desires the thousands of decisions made in a product launch. A great benefit of the technique lies in resolving multiple characteristics that can’t all be satisfied simultaneously. These are tough judgment calls to make in any circumstances and are often resolved haphazardly today.

Very useful for understanding QFD is the “house of quality” chart. A unifying hub of QFD, it helps show people what factors to weigh most heavily. In addition, the chart helps uncover interdependencies among multiple goals and engineering attributes. Furthermore, QFD in general serves as an excellent “handle” for decision-making in real-world, complex manu-facturing environments.

The process begins with a detailed study of customer interests and desires. These “customer attributes” then drive the entire manufacturing decision-making process, from conception to product design, fabrication, and assembly. Relative weights are assigned to the various customer attributes. Indeed, weighting is used throughout the process to guide downstream decision making so it reflects customer’s value of the product or attribute. These customer attributes are stated in the customers’ own words.

Take for example, the customer’s concern that “the door doesn’t leak in the rain.” Using the customers’ own words avoids the “telephone party game” of successive information loss as the functional groups translate attributes into their own terms before communicating them down the line. Customer attributes are recorded along the left margin of a “house of quality” chart.

Next, the major engineering characteristics that affect those subjective customer values are identified. One could be “leak pressure,’ for instance. The engineering characteristics are simply a technical and quantitative restatement of the customer’s needs. The engineering characteristics become the column heading of the matrix. Then the cells within the matrix are filled to show the correlation among the subjective customer attributes and the engineering characteristics. Each correlation can be positive or negative and may vary in strength. For each engineering characteristic, physical measures are also assigned. They represent actual physical values for that parameter. These values are ascertained both for the chief competitors’ products as well as the firm’s own current product.

Later, desired target values are assigned to these engineering characteristics. They surpass competitor product values. Proceeding in this systematic fashion leads to a final product that embodies the original customer requirements. A low-tech solution like QFD can be remarkably effective in maintaining fidelity throughout the entire launch process.

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